2010 was a VERY good year for rock ‘n’ roll. As much as I love a somewhat ludicrous range of music (not many see the charms of both MDC and Barry Manilow), it’s always good ol’ rock that tickles my aging heart the mostest. And my ticker has been palpatatin’ like a sprinter on Columbian blue flake in 2010. Artists are increasingly making the music in their souls instead of playing to any outside sensibility. Changes in how music reaches people and how it’s digested have sparked a quiet revolution where the producers are able to directly connect with consumers in ways hitherto unimaginable. The long defended middle man mentality of the record industry is falling away, and while many people remain lazy in their listening, happily gobbling up whatever the powers that be tell them to – things like Gaga and Bieber don’t happen organically – there’s a growing constituency that’s seeking out what they genuinely dig, the music that informs and illuminates their lives. If you’re hanging around the Impound then you’re one of these folks, and we commend you for making an effort!
This list represents the best albums I came across in the hundreds of new releases I checked out in 2010. One of the key criteria used for this list was how the music hung together as an album, an entity unique and inextricably intertwined in ways beyond a random assortment of tracks, which the mainstream largely thinks passes for an album in the 21st century. Despite the fragmentation of music in recent years, there are still artists dedicated to creating works that add up to more than the sum of their parts, works that dream big, ask essential questions and even offer a few answers. Each of these albums grapples with the world in a unique way, offering shading and perspective beyond what we might achieve on our own. They embiggen our lives, offer new keys for unlocking life’s complexities and even inspire a measure of joy in some cases. In every instance, these albums made my world – and not a few others’ – richer and more interesting – a gift each time the proverbial needle hit the groove.
Dirty Impound’s 20 Best Albums of 2010
ALO: Man of the World (Brushfire Records)
If pop music were measured by the yardstick of Man of the World then commercial radio might be worth paying attention to. ALO write classic songs and deliver them in a very easy to like manner. And it doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is so nicely captured (ALO co-produced with old pal Jack Johnson with studio whiz kid Dave Simon-Baker engineering the sessions); this record is just a pleasure to listen to. They are a perfect example of what I call “If The Beatles Really Won” music. Resounding craftsmanship underlies every track here, along with a refreshing sense of sincerity, realism and hope. When this Bay Area band says “I Love Music” they mean it and make us feel it, too.
Antioquia: My piano ate the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle (self-released)
Revolutions that dance succeed. SF’s Antioquia possess a distinct socio-political bent but shimmy about like kids on Pixie sticks and Kool-Aid as they prod and peel away at entrenched infrastructures. Echoes of Fela, Pere Ubu and Talking Heads ping around in their sound, but none so much to overshadow the original voice rising in this young band. Where headlines scream of bloodshed and despair, Antioquia shouts back something brighter, a blaze born of humanity’s innate vitality and drive towards freedom, connection and purpose.
Bad Religion: The Dissent of Man (Epitaph)
30 years on, Bad Religion has maintained their hot, angry core but surrounded it with a sophistication and tight musicianship worthy of The Clash – arguably the benchmark for any punk group with evolutionary aspirations. The three guitar frontline of Brett Gurewitz, Greg Hetson and Brian Baker is lethal and almost impossibly uncluttered, simply the pointy teeth of this beast. Greg Graffin remains the brainiest, best lead singer punk has produced in the past 30 years, and the rhythm section of bassist Jay Bentley and drummer Brooks Wackerman (brother of Chad) are indestructible and ever-potent. There’s still plenty to be pissed off about and Bad Religion still expresses that better than almost anyone, but now they also churn out non-mushy relationship songs and offer an honest glimmer of positivity.
One of the greatest driving records in recent memory – a smoothly unfolding, mightily melodic, warm soundtrack for eating miles and chasing horizons. While the Horses’ first two albums held numerous fine moments, Infinite Arms is their most together outing to date, dialing back the emotional tenor and pushing their songwriting into fresh dynamics. Moving to the country seems to suit Ben Bridwell and his finally solidified band, their music taking on greater landscape and environmental vibration whilst they ply a very vinyl-minded kind of rock.
Delta Spirit: History From Below (Rounder)
Full of salt in wounds and scarecrows, Delta Spirit’s sophomore record revealed an emotional maturity and musical sophistication only hinted at on their 2008 debut, Ode To Sunshine. With My Morning Jacket’s Bo Koster playing keys and co-producing with Everest’s secret weapon, Elijah Thomson, History is a densely structured journey through heavy thoughts and feelings that somehow manages to be uplifting despite its clear-eyed honesty. An achingly beautiful work.
Dr. Dog: Shame, Shame (Anti-)
The fifth long-player from Philly’s finest classic-oriented rock band proved their darkest and most artfully mature outing to date. While the tunes remained catchy as the common cold – true heirs to Lennon and McCartney – the lyrics plumbed the sticky recesses of the human psyche, fearlessly acknowledging that sometimes we want someone to give us a black eye just so we feel something. Yet, so skilled are Dr. Dog that one can’t help but sing along; the real meaning seeping into us subversively, there to haunt us in the quiet hours.
After 2008’s sprawling double album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark it was heartening for the Truckers to drop a single dead solid rock slab in our laps. In many ways, this was business as usual, but when you do meat ‘n’ taters rock as well as these Southerners you don’t need to tinker with much. Their gift for characters and cinematically charged scenes rivals Steely Dan, and their gutbucket sophistication equals Ronnie Van Zandt-era Skynyrd. One won’t soon forget – or stop singing along to – tunes like “This Fucking Job,” “Birthday Boy” or really anything else here.
Love, either its flowering or death, will always be subject matter number one for songwriters. However, few will come up with as totally fab a song cycle as Escovedo. Once again working extensively with fellow uber-pros Chuck Prophet and Tony Visconti, Escovedo makes the tried and true topic skip on new, muscular legs, savoring love’s virtues and lamenting its lack in many lives. Folks talk a lot about heart but Street Songs of Love takes a metaphorical rib-spreader and pulls it out so we might all marvel at its mighty thump.
Everest: On Approach (Warner Brothers)
Despite releasing one of the best debuts in the past 10 years, 2008’s Ghost Notes, Los Angeles-based Everest showed a lot more colors and range on their sophomore joint, fulfilling the abundant promise of their live shows with a studio set that’s rangy, raucous and compulsively listenable. Years of opening for admirers MMJ, Wilco and Neil Young have emboldened Everest, giving them a loft and reach beyond their many short-armed peers. Beautifully arranged and played and saturated with feeling, good and bad, On Approach hums with life, guitars ringing under broad skies as one of the finest lead singers today, Russell Pollard, probes into the meat of us. And this just feels like the next step in the maturation of one of today’s classics-in-the-making.
Nick Cave and Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos make an unruly, manly racket in their Grinderman incarnation, a wholly different creature to the brainy, Biblically haunted corridors of their day jobs. Wielding a guitar like a rusty axe, Cave careens through the vicissitudes of aging and particularly the impact of years on one’s phallic potential and sexual appeal. A punk-blues atmosphere pervades some pieces but the second Grinderman offering has greater nuances, though most are prickly and nervous making even in the quietest moments. Cave once again proves one of the great lyricist of our time, giving us lingering verses like, “My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster/ Two great big humps and then I’m gone/ But actually I am the Abominable Snowman/ I guess that I’ve loved you for too long.” Harrowing, pecker wrecking good times.
Spirituality is a tricky business in this millennium, where zealotry duels with indifference, each imperfect approaches to making the unknowable bearable. Something in us craves understanding and perhaps a child’s desire that the universe is at least a bit kind and ordered. Putting this kind of complexity into songs – particularly stripped bare, mostly acoustic settings – is no easy task, yet Hiss Golden Messenger manages it on an album with the raw immediacy of Johnny Cash’s most harrowing American Recordings and the bare skin of early gospel and field recordings given a scholar’s gloss and contemporary lilt.
In the greatest reinvention of 2010, Shooter all but abandoned everything he’d done prior to embrace a boundary-free, rock ‘n’ roll infused new approach that yielded arguably the bravest, most interesting song cycle of the past year, an album every bit the equal to anything Radiohead or My Morning Jacket has mustered. Long viewed as “Waylon’s kid,” Shooter reveals himself as one of the most astute observers of the human condition today on Black Ribbons, an Orwellian concept album with Stephen King along as narrator. What’s cool is how well the songs work without the thematic underpinning AND how much they grow in context. The overall sound is tough and dappled with analog keyboards, choice reverb, lyrics that will haunt you, and no small amount of inky black humor. Shooter and Hierophant have all the ingredients to become one seriously amazing band based on this first stunning salvo.
While not as instantly potent or accessible as their debut, Don’t Be A Stranger, this quintessential grower may be the stronger overall album experience. Allowed to simmer, Tidelands weds The Moondoggies’ forceful arrangements and Crosby, Stills & Nash-esque harmonies to interlocking philosophical concepts and a chugging rock energy that propel one ever-forward, each piece as essential as the ones bumping its edges, the whole thing rich in a way that’ll take years to explore.
The New Up: Gold (The New Up Records)
Simply put, The New Up is one of the best things going in modern rock. The energy of now crackles in their super appealing tunes on Gold, which functions as a gliding, grinding score to today’s hustle ‘n’ bustle – a muddle where emotions often get confused, forced underground out of fear and doubt. This San Francisco bunch excels at divining where these sorts of buried feelings lie, bringing them to the surface with the pop and roar of a welcome geyser. ES Pitcher continues to evolve into one of the strongest women in rock, a voice full of girlish seduction and womanly smarts, and the boys around her ooze cool and curiosity in ways impossible to ignore. And they’ve got most of their modern rock cohorts skunked musicianship wise, too. Total package this one and by all indications, only getting started.
Considerable fire clearly resides in the bellies of Tom and his Heartbreakers based on the hopping, growling evidence of Mojo, easily the band’s finest hour since perhaps 1987’s Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough). Captured in the band’s rehearsal space with minimal overdubs, Mojo gets one of the greatest live bands ever to bring their massive stage energy into a more focused, condensed setting. The results are scorchers like First Flash of Freedom, I Should Have Known It and the smoldering The Trip To Pirate’s Cove. At 60, Petty is as vital and exciting as he was in his 70s heyday, a model for other songwriters and bandleaders well worth mimicking.
Powder Mill: Money, Marbles and Chalk (Powder Mill Music)
With their third full-length Powder Mill cemented their place in the Southern Rock pantheon, joining recent inductees like the North Mississippi Allstars and the Drive-By Truckers. However, Powder Mill is more gloriously Southern, reveling in the mythology and daily culture of the region and using it as a sharp lens on a country in the throes of wild change and conflict, a place where the factories are shutting down and whole towns are left to wallow and self-medicate as the world moves on without them. Money, Marbles and Chalk mines the humanity in our shared struggles, puts a face on those we may have missed, perhaps especially those living right next to us. This corker is rockin’ and righteous and good for a laugh or three, country as a motherfucker and armed with riffs that leave a bruise.
The Roots: How I Got Over (Def Jam)
Well worth the two year wait, How I Got Over confirmed The Roots as the premiere live band in hip-hop (their only real competition is under-sung Asheville greats GFE) and the torchbearers for what Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, Sly & The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway started long ago. Unlike most of the boasting, money obsessed, ass-chasing twaddle that passes for hip-hop lately, How I Got Over is culturally relevant in a substantive way and musically savvy and advanced in ways Diddy, et al. will never be. Nothing here goes for flash, instead building each tune by layers, each touch carefully chosen and executed, down to working way outside genre norms with folks like Joanna Newsome and Monsters of Folk. The final product is sublime and stirring, a triumph in a career already filled with them.
Otis Taylor: Clovis People, Vol. 3 (Telarc)
Though often sequestered in the blues category by lazy listeners and critics, Otis Taylor has spent the past 15 years steadily growing into one of the most original, fascinating musicians on earth. His work takes the African roots of the blues and weaves them into all manner of American music – snippets of country twang bumping against Dixieland and rock – and pushing further over time into classical forms, flamenco and more. He’s taken the banjo back from the white man and he’s waded into modal jazz with Jason Moran. That said, Clovis People, Vol. 3 (there is no volumes 1 & 2, by the way) is perhaps his bluesiest collection in years, revisiting some earlier numbers and carving something raw and new out of them. But these are Otis’ blues, so each is flecked with the misbehaved, lovely pedal steel of Chuck Campbell and the bright, penetrating cornet of Ron Miles. Underneath it all, the feeling soaked bass work and captivating harmonies of daughter Cassie Taylor float, sparring fantastically with Gary Moore’s electric guitar and intuitive timekeeper Larry Thompson. Often spare on details, these songs live up to Otis’ notion that “The more words you put into a song, the less freedom the listener has to decide what it means.”
Gasping for air and struggling to rise above the mounting waves, These United States’ fourth release directly engaged with that toughest of nuts to crack – mortality. Try as we might – atheist and believer alike – there’s no sidestepping Death, but the moves we make with him matter, and TUS discovers some pretty nifty steps for the living on What Lasts. Musically, it’s continued growth, combining the best elements of Crimes and Everything Touches Everything for hooky, rootsy rock that also abides beautifully. For as tumultuous as the subject can be, What Lasts is ultimately rejuvenating, a skipping reminder to the living to get out there and live.
Paul Weller: Wake up The Nation (Yep Roc)
Weller’s fifties are turning out to be one of the most creative, switched-on periods in his lengthy, largely fruitful career. Backed with a new sonically curious, musically fearless band, he knocked out his second new classic in a row with Wake Up The Nation. More focused yet even more diverse than 2008’s 22 Dreams rambles into mini-epics about reincarnation (Trees), agit-rock (title tune) and more. Weller seems game to explore whatever comes into his head, a one-man White Album with nearly the mojo of the Fab Four in his well-dressed frame. Wake Up The Nation is a call to arms without a specific agenda, happy to shake us from the modern malaise but unwilling to be programmatic. How truly punk of you, sir!